We are, of course, appalled that 6,000 reports of possible child abuse and neglect to Child Protective Services received not even follow-up phone calls.
A state agency that cannot manage to at least triage possible harm to its most vulnerable children has a lot to answer for.
But as child welfare advocates have pointed out, even if the administrative problems that afflict CPS are fixed, we are still left with the question: Why are so many children being victimized and how can it be prevented?
The answers go far beyond caseloads that are twice the recommended federal standard, which, combined with low pay, make for a caseworker turnover rate that helps to explain how so many serious cases of abuse can fall through the cracks.
And the answers also aren’t limited to a foster care system that provides too few resources to help foster parents succeed while tying many of them up in court if their children are still dealing with the juvenile justice system or custody cases — or just needing routine check-ins with family court judges.
The children are overwhelmingly from poor families dealing with the stresses of tight budgets, joblessness and substance abuse. That doesn’t mean children from middle-class families aren’t being victimized. But the roles that poverty and lack of upward mobility play in child abuse and neglect are well-documented. CPS can’t alleviate poverty just as the police can’t stop drug abuse — the community at large has to be willing to step up to those challenges.
Poverty alone, however, isn’t the only factor in the mistreatment of children. There are incompetent parents in dysfunctional families at all levels of society, and to prevent child abuse, parent education and training need to move to the forefront of the child welfare agenda. The tools needed to rear and nurture a child don’t necessarily come naturally, especially for parents who themselves were neglected as children. Just teaching parents how to resolve conflicts peaceably and productively would go a long way toward de-escalating the abuse in some families.
When a neighbor or friend feels it’s time to get authorities involved, we would hope they had first let the parents know of their concern directly. Sometimes just knowing that someone else is watching and prepared to intervene will cause an abusive parent to pull back and even seek help. We can’t help the neighbors’ kids if we are still strangers to their parents — get them involved in Block Watch or just invite them over for coffee.
For those children who do reach Child Protective Services and need to be removed temporarily from the home, judges’ hands are often tied if there are no foster beds available or even a group home. Clarence Carter, head of DES, which oversees CPS, has talked of forming more community partnerships to recruit and train more foster parents, but so far the seed money and the leadership at the local level have been lacking. Yes, CPS must get its house in order before more children suffer. But there are more houses right here in Flagstaff that could be the refuge from the storm for children whose parents themselves need a time-out. For more information on becoming a foster parent, visit www.azdes.gov.